Earlier, I included this in a little article about “terrible movies with great trailers.” This was the best of the films I listed in there (which included, for example, Showgirls). But it also demonstrates how conflicted I am about this film. Every time I watch it, or read about it, I either come away having surrendered to its poignancy, or ready to dismiss it as one of the most overhyped, headache inducing films of all time. I am not the only one who has this problem. Natural Born Killers was named the best film of the nineties by Entertainment Weekly, but also holds a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes and many declare it the WORST film they have ever seen. Who’s right?
The thing is, Natural Born Killers is undoubtedly an important film and one that had an enormous impact on public discourse. It is such a singular vision that no one in the Hollywood system would be willing to make it today. I doubt that even director Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s former bad boy, could make it without changing much of it around. The film also was simultaneously made at the right time while seemingly cognizant of the future. The early nineties was the great era of the media circus, with the O.J. trial, the Waco disaster, and the Rodney King beating (and L.A. riots) being broadcast around the world.
It was also released only seven years after this little gem, which Stone undoubtedly saw when it was broadcast (and which undoubtedly inspired the interview scenes in the film).
Since Natural Born Killers was released, we have seen two school massacres that gained more coverage than major wars, the DC beltway sniper, and 9/11. The same cast of characters was blamed each time. Indeed, Stone himself was accused of inspiring copy cat killers with this film. Natural Born Killers was a brave film for willingly discussing this shameful trend of pandering to the lowest common denominator. People complained about the violence in this film, but then, as Stone pointed out, why weren’t they willing to criticize the news for showing sensational snuff in which ACTUAL people were killed, rather than just stuntmen wearing squibs?
But does the fact that it had something important to say make it a good film? I still have yet to answer my first question: who is right?
Part of this debate has to do with the figure of Oliver Stone himself. He, to put it mildly, uses his films to make the blood boil (certainly a worthy endeavor) but then goes beyond even McLuhan’s theories about reality and media and seems to think that his own works are important historical documents. I will use his JFK as an example. I disagree with every single thing the film says, but I cannot stop watching it. It’s one of the best, most effective political thrillers I’ve seen. But Stone, in countless interviews before that release, stated this his film was truth. This is a lie. As history, JFK is some sort of sinister Orwellian construct. But as an example of film-making, it’s an absolute triumph.
Strange thing is, the exact opposite is true for Natural Born Killers. As a satire against media, violence, and society’s almost fetishistic obsession with seeing real blood, Natural Born Killers is an effective document that successfully pushes the boundaries as far as they can go. But as a film, it’s a mess, with one dimensional characters, editing that makes MTV look like an Ozu film, over the top performances, and a script that seems to believe focus is something for those intellectuals in the ivory tower.
The film is about Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), a couple who go on a cross country killing spree. The media follows them, and they build up a cult following. They are eventually arrested, but this sensational journalist named Gale (Downey Jr) uses the opportunity to interview Mickey and build his career.
First, the film LOOKS fantastic. Stone incorporates every single film format that was in existence at the time. While many say this is disorienting, it actually makes the film quite poignant about over-saturation via media. The film feels like someone who is flipping through cable and seeing the different formats that were available – but every channel tells the same story of grotesque violence and people who have built a cult of personality around demented human beings.
It was a completely appropriate choice for the material, but it demonstrates where Stone’s mind was. So focused was he on the effect that he forgot the little things – like characterization. And plot.
For example, Mickey and Mallory Knox, the two leads that go on the killing spree and develop a huge cult of personality, are barely even characters at all. They are a hodge podge of every story about serial killers that came out during the eighties and nineties. They kill simply because that is what the film (and the message) requires them to do. That may be fine for a piece of propaganda, but as a film, we do not understand their motivation or their drive. Why kill like they do? And do not tell me the title is the only answer. Lewis and Harrelson (two talented actors) do the best with what they can.But they are not given nearly enough to be compelling characters. It would have been helpful if we could identify with Mickey and Mallory – maybe then we could understand the cult that builds around them or confront the dark desires in ourselves. But no, Stone apparently wants to say something without taking the time out to let the material speak for itself.
Every other character is the same sort of one dimensional joke. Tommy Lee Jones’ warden is a precursor to his performance as Two-Face. Robert Downey Jr is not a reporter with a past but only represents the sort of Geraldo Rivera type gossiper. The only one who manages to convey depth is Rodney Dangerfield, as the creepy, abusive father to Mallory. But he is dispatched with before anything can be done with him.
That’s the most obvious problem, but the film has many others. For one, the first half of the film may as well not exist in terms of what Stone wants to do. It’s pretty much Mickey and Mallory on drugs, looking for spirit quests. The scene with the Navajo is downright laughable, even though it’s meant to be a huge moment in the character arc. The film and its message do not start until halfway through the film. At that point, as I said, it’s effective because it delivers the same sort of sensory overload that is demanded by the media then and now. But it takes a lot time getting there.
But anyway, none of this answers my original question: is the film good? And yes, I suppose it is. It effectively makes its point. But Stone had such a great love for himself and his abilities that he didn’t feel the need to deliver a great story to go along with his poignant message. He was terribly, terribly wrong.